Where Do the Neocons Go from Here?

After Iraq, their influence at the White House may be ebbing

While the Bush Administration struggles to plant the seeds of democracy in the scorched earth of Iraq, the neoconservative thinkers who provided the intellectual firepower for military action against Saddam Hussein are already looking beyond Baghdad. Convinced that as the sole superpower, America has both the means and the manifest destiny to promote democratic reform around the globe, neocons inside and outside the Bush Administration are eager to press forward with their muscular foreign policy. Toppling Saddam, they argue, is just a prelude to large-scale regime change in the Persian Gulf and beyond.

Still, in this moment of triumph, there are serious questions about the future of a movement that has denounced Soviet communism and other dictatorships for four decades. Was the victory over Saddam proof that the neoconservatives have arrived? Or was the Iraq war the high point of a confrontational philosophy that may be too divisive for a President who has an economy to fix and a reelection to win? Or neither?

Certainly, in Iraq, the neocons' agenda matched the foreign policy goals of the Administration. But now their postwar priorities seem to be on a collision course with those of the White House. And some Bush aides fear that embracing an expansive neocon agenda -- without a ready-made villain like Saddam Hussein -- could alienate swing voters.

Nowhere is the threat of conflict between the Administration and the superhawks greater than in the debate over the stalled Middle East peace process. Neocons insist that Israel should not resume negotiations until Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat is removed from power and Palestinian officials crack down on terrorist groups.

However, there is no small irony in the fact that by pressing for a military solution in Iraq, the neocons have created a situation in which Israel may be forced into concessions that it might otherwise have resisted. The President is under intense pressure from the State Dept. and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his staunchest international ally, to persuade Israel to accept a new "road map" to peace and a nation of Palestine. "President Bush is caught between the neocons and his coalition partner," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank, "and there's going to be a huge donnybrook."

The close-knit intellectuals who make up the neoconservative movement have been called extremists, warmongers, American imperialists -- and even a Zionist cabal. "In their world, good will conquer evil," says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. "In many ways, it's a secular version of religious fundamentalism."

The influence of the neocons runs deep in the Bush Administration. Among the most prominent Bush advisers with roots in the movement are Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, Pentagon policy chief Douglas J. Feith, and Defense Policy Board member Richard N. Perle. More important, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Vice-President Dick Cheney, two old-fashioned hawks, have become key allies, siding with the neocons in the internecine warfare against the forces of multilateralism at Colin Powell's State Dept.

Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum, tensions within the Administration could also boil over when it comes to fulfilling the President's pledge to spread democracy throughout the Middle East. To halt financial aid to terrorists and curb the spread of anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda, the neocons believe that the U.S. should pressure not only Syria and Iran but also Saudi Arabia.

Syria already seems to be responding to the intense heat from Washington. And when it comes to the theocracy in Iran, says neocon Kenneth L. Adelman, a former Reagan arms-control negotiator and onetime Rumsfeld assistant, the situation calls for covert U.S. assistance to dissidents similar to the aid Ronald Reagan gave to the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland.

More controversial is the neocon position on Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is a longtime recipient of U.S. arms, and members of the Saudi royal family are close to the first President Bush. "Saudi Arabia is, of course, the big enchilada," says Adelman. "I would stop calling it a friendly country....It's still a center of funding of terrorism, of the spreading of pretty vicious anti-American statements." Yet that kind of hot rhetoric worries Administration officials, who prefer private negotiations to nudge the kingdom toward instituting democratic reforms and toning down its attacks on the U.S. and Israel. To reduce tensions, the Bush team already is moving troops off of bases.

In North Korea, many neocons believe that Bush should ignore dictator Kim Jong Il in the hope that his family's legacy of terror and economic ineptitude will eventually lead to his undoing. In this case, the superhawks see no viable military option because of the likelihood of a retaliatory attack on the South Korean capital of Seoul. However, the Administration is engaging Pyongyang in the hopes of cutting a deal that dismantles the North's nukes in exchange for economic aid and an American pledge not to attack.

Neocon impatience with that sort of diplomacy is just as evident when it comes to Old Europe and international institutions such as the U.N. that rein in U.S. power. Many in the movement would like to jettison institutions they see as managing the status quo rather than spreading democracy. Traditional Western European powers "have a real cartoon view of America" as a gun-toting cowboy, says William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a leading forum for neocon thinking. "Suddenly, they're living in a world where there is one superpower with global reach, and they have a hard time living with it."

America's unchallenged hegemony began when President Reagan, the first neoconservative icon, helped topple Eastern European communism with a decade of confrontation and jawboning. Today's neocons see Bush as the heir to that legacy as he gets rogue regimes in line -- or incapacitated. But with internal politics dividing the Administration and external politics in need of tending, the next battle for democracy may just have to wait.

By Richard S. Dunham, with Stan Crock and Lee Walczak, in Washington

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